Is that Rolex real? What are they doing with these tiny garlands? How do I eat a soup on a boat? On these and other important issues in this journal about Bangkok’s markets.
by SeenThat on August 22, 2009
BanglamphuSeeing the tours offered by Khaosan Road travel agencies to local markets all over Bangkok is ironic; one of the best and largest markets in town is just a few blocks away next to the Banglamphu Canal.North of Khaosan Road, Thanon Rambuttri, runs almost parallel to it, though it features a curve on its east end. The two streets are connected by several alleys. Following in the same direction, the next road is Thanon Phra Sumen (on the western side, the eastern side of the avenue is divided into three shorter blocks). Right next to Thanon Phra Sumen is a canal named Khlong Banglamphu that delimits the area. The area is home to the Banglamphu Market, one of the largest day markets in the city.Thanon Phra Sumen runs parallel to the canal until its junction with the Chao Phraya River, changing then its name to Thanon Phra Athit. West of its junction with Thanon Chakkrapong, Thanon Phra Sumen houses many coffee shops restaurants and guesthouses as well as one of the most beautiful parks in the city: the Santi Chai Prakan Park and Phra Sumen Fort.LayoutMore than any other market in town, this market can be defined as chaotic. It is not divided in areas, though stalls selling the same products can often be found near each other. Moreover, it doesn’t have clear borders; stalls occupy the area’s sidewalks, sometimes merging with the shops across the sidewalk. Canopies connect the shops and the stalls, providing relief from the sun during the day.Serendipity is the best approach under the conditions. The only thing the traveler can be sure of is that surprises await within the market.FoodAn important part of Thai markets, food stalls are a bit difficult to find here due to the shops density. Early in the morning, coffee and snacks stalls abound. Later in the day, look for noodle soup, meat on rice, satay and other popular Thai food establishments in the often unnamed alleys half hidden among the shops. The area features a supermarket – still an unusual sight in most of Thailand – along Thanon Chakkrapong. It provides an awesome mix of Thai and Western products: pickled mangos and apples share the same shelves.Just outside the supermarket are several stalls selling sweetened and pickled fruits; identifying some of them can get difficult. For those with a less adventurous taste, orange and coconut juice are also widely available. For a coffee break during an intense shopping spree – maybe while looking for souvenirs for far away friends, a day before the flight back – the best is reaching the nearby Phra Sumen Fort. Posh coffee shops in front of it allow beautiful views of the Santi Chai Prakan Park, the Rama VIII Bridge and the fort.Traditional ProfessionsOne problem I constantly face in Bangkok is the odd sizes of clothing offered; they always need some fixing. This is true especially for trousers that apparently are made of only one (and very long) length. Not all the shops offer this service. The solution is simple: seamstresses can be found in many markets. That’s especially true for Pratunam and Banglamphu markets. Fixing a trousers length is done for roughly a dollar. In the market, customers are expected to pay in cash and in Thai baht; bargaining hard is also expected.After walking for a while among the many downtown attractions, some travelers may need a quick fix of their shoes. Cobblers capable of that abound in the markets. Other traditional professions can be spotted along the market’s streets.ClothesInexpensive clothes fit for exploring and walking are ubiquitous here, two of the most popular items are T-shirts and fisherman pants. The T-shirts display pictures of local themes and attractions. Many feature highly provocative messages in an attempt to lure travelers. However, not being paid for displaying these advertisements, I see no reason to buy them.A different item is more interesting since it makes superb souvenirs: it is light, it can be folded into a tiny package and is an original part of the local culture. Several stalls selling fisherman pants are located one block south of the bridge over the canal. Note that several qualities exist (thick cotton, thin cotton, and those made of a cotton and synthetic mixed fabric). Unlike other pants, these appear in various lengths. The prices here are good (lower than in Chiang Mai); thus there is very little margin for bargaining, unless buying a significant quantity.Is that all?Completely exploring a Thai market is probably impossible. There is always another corner, a hidden nook or an unexpected alley. Other shops in the area offer gold and jewelry, sunglasses, shoes, handbags and many other items. Serendipity is the key; moving along is the only rule.
Irresistible NameDamnoen Saduak means "To travel (or move) comfortably." How can a traveler avoid a place with such a name? Digging KhlongsEighty kilometers southwest of Bangkok, the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market provides many of the better known pictures of Thailand. Khlong Damnoen Saduak, the canal in which it is located, was ordered to be built by King Rama IV in 1866 to facilitate travels between Ratchaburi and Samut Sakhon by connecting the Tha Chin River with the Mae Klong River. Opened to the public in 1868, it provides unforgettable views of floating noodle soup stalls and Thai women wearing flat topped bamboo hats.In the 21st Century its transport and agricultural qualities are secondary to the tourism industry. The fertile adjacent fields provide the needed products to fill up the boats clogging the main canal and to serve tasty meals to the hordes standing by the piers. The traditional Thai boats and the time-honored garments of the sellers provide an exceptional view into the classical Thai culture. There is no better testimony to the authenticity of the sights than the fact that most visitors are Thais, and most of them have clearly arrived from the big city. Even the kitschy souvenirs sold from boats do not manage to spoil the experience.Floating ThereThe market is in the Ratchaburi Province. It can be comfortably reached with air conditioned buses from Bangkok’s Southern Terminal (is this the origin of the market’s name?). Please note that the terminal was moved in recent years further away from Thonburi’s center. It can be reached with bus 4 from the Victory Monument or with a taxi. The bus 4 trip to the terminal costs a staggering thirty baht as compared to the regular seven baht fare; to that, the transport to the Victory Monument should be added. The Skytrain has a station at the Victory Monument.TimingThis is a morning market, meaning it opens at 7 AM and closes before noon. Since the bus trip takes more than an hour, departing early is a must if willing to enjoy the visit.Tha KhaIf reaching Damnoen Saduak during a weekend, it is also possible to visit Tha Kha. This is another floating market located ten kilometers away and more local in spirit. It can be reached by taxi from Damnoen Saduak; however, before reaching it, make sure it is open. The items offered are similar to those in the bigger market, but without the video-filming crowds. LayoutThe main area of the market features a large central structure located next to the main canal and a long pier. Boats dock there and buyers can buy merchandise and food from them; nearby are benches were the food can be enjoyed. Smaller canals spin off the main one; also they are under occupation of floating stalls. Traditional Thai teakwood houses built on stilts can be seen in the area. Most of the canals feature piers; boats can be called from anywhere along them. Trust the boatmen to reach any free spot along the pier, regardless how narrow the available parking area seems to be.The boats are long, flat and narrow, characteristics that give them an awesome capability to maneuver amidst the plethora of competitors surrounding them. They would approach any customer signaling them to do so, even at places not designed for that. An interesting point is the boatmen attire. The women running boat-shops wear special hats, conical with flat tops; I have not seen similar ones in Thailand. PricesOn food, fruits, fruit juice and similar items the profit margin is low, prices are only slightly higher than in Bangkok. However, if attempting to buy souvenirs, bargaining is essential as the prices here are very inflated. Note that all these souvenirs – unlike the food – have been brought here from elsewhere.Don’t Run Away with the SoupEven noodle soup can be prepared on these boats; this is by far the most interesting item to purchase in the market since it demands a special equipped boat and high skills from the owner. The noodle soup boats provide unusual sights; the soup is prepared in a compact and smart designed apparatus, fit for a spaceship. The soup cooking pot is divided into tree compartments, each one containing a different part of the soup (one for the soup, the others for various additions that must be cooked separately). Surrounding it – and the cook – are baskets containing the fresh ingredients of the soup. Since the customers looks at the boat from above, the experience allows witnessing the event at angles impossible on regular shops. As in all similar establishments, the customer is allowed to choose among the add-ons.A thing to keep in mind is that these shops are intrinsically different from those on the shore: they move faster than their customers. Moreover, the soup is served outside the shop premises. Thus, the idea is to get the soup from the boat, eat it on a table nearby and then return the dishes to the owner as soon as possible. The next customer is waiting on a different pier.
The MythosIt is time to break an old mythos. Most visitors approach Patpong as their "night market visit" while in Bangkok Index. Yet, Patpong is small, crowded and located in an unpleasant area amidst a plethora of go-go bars.Yet, no far from there – at walking distance – is a much larger, pleasant and attractive market: Suan Lum. The name means "Low Garden" (literally "garden low"); that may look a strange choice for a night market until the visitor recalls he is just next to Lumphini, the largest park in Bangkok.As Patpong, this market has been artificially upgraded; it is not called a market anymore. The welcome sign reads "Suan Lum Night Bazaar." Even the Thai script on the sign reads "night bazaar," this Thainglish combination has just the right amount of appeal to attract the local population.I was at Lumphini and Silom but didn’t see it!Even if visiting Lumphini and Silom by foot, it is easy to miss this large market. Simply it is located on other corner of the large park at the intersection of Rama IV and Wireless roads. Walking there from Silom or through the park is possible and recommended; however, the Lumphini Park Station of the metro is near the market.The market opens roughly at 6 PM and stays open until midnight. The best approach is to make such a visit planning to dine in the market. LayoutThe market includes several thousand stalls, posing a real competence to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. If the stalls weren’t arranged in specialized areas, one visit wouldn’t be enough to see the whole maze. Strategically placed among the shops are food plazas, restaurants and a puppets theatre.An advantage when compared with Patpong is that this market is covered, allowing visits also during the rainy season. Another notable difference is the crowd visiting the market. As a result of its location and facilities this market is the most sophisticated among Bangkok’s traditional and street markets. Thus, the visitors are obviously better off, and include Thai, expats and travelers alike.ProductsThe products offered here are not different from those in other markets; the difference lies in the quantity and variety of the merchandise. However, beyond the expected souvenirs, DVDs, clothes, gold, jewellery and food, this market also offers antiques, paintings and sculptures.FoodDining in the market is part of the experience; few places in Bangkok offer a better choice of establishments. These include Thai and international restaurants and bars as well as a large beer garden. Some of them have indoor tables while others allow sitting outside and enjoying the chaotic ambience; a few of the most sophisticated spots even offer live Thai cover bands. However, the best option for dinning is combining the experience with a visit to the puppets’ theatre.EntertainmentWithin the bazaar is the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre. Naatayasala Hun Lakorn Lek in Thai. Its performances of traditional Thai Puppets Theatre are centered on the Ramakien, Thailand's national epic.The theatre was born under dramatic circumstances, when an old art was almost lost. In 1984, a man named Sakorn demonstrated the ancient art of making khon masks and puppets in a booth at the annual Suan Amporn Fair in Bangkok. The Thai authorities found then that he was the last person alive mastering this art and he was offered to produce more puppets. Next year he participated again, this time with a show performed by his children and the theatre was born. In 1996 he was recognized as a National Artist and three years later the first theatre was inaugurated. In 2002 the theatre was moved to its actual location at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar. It is frequented by Thai royalty and has won numerous awards.The shows begin at 8 PM, but a documentary on Thai Puppetry can be enjoyed thirty minutes before the performance; the shows long 75 minutes. Amulets, headdresses, masks, and puppets are sold as souvenirs. The attached Naatayasala Terrace offers dinners in a beautiful ambient decorated with traditional Thai motifs. Few places in town display a more traditional Thai ambience.Also in the bazaar is the Bangkok Hall. It hosts concerts and special events. Due to its nature, it is not open every day.BargainingThe sad truth is that things at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar are not cheap; bargaining is essential and expected.After spotting a worthy item, relax and show the shopkeeper your best smile while pointing at it. A price would be announced. Now is the moment for showing shock and asking for twenty percent of the mentioned price by the shopkeeper.The vendor would show his – or her - shock, and the ritual would be continued until an agreement is reached. A forty to fifty percent of the original price can be reached with a bit of patience and humor. A good negotiating tactic is learning the Thai numbers and bargaining afterwards like a local; the sellers would enjoy so much the tones mispronunciations that a better price is guaranteed. Of course, purchasing several items would be rewarded with an extra discount for quantity.
As Bangkok Index, Silom Road has enough attractions - cultural and commercial - to keep most visitors busy for a long time, but those are obscured by the bad reputation created by the infamous Patpong alleys at the street’s eastern end. However, Patpong is more than two alleys packed with go-go bars; it houses also a very popular night market. But, I am running ahead.SilomAmong Bangkok's main avenues, Silom offers the biggest diversity. That’s the result of its housing the main commercial quarter of the town and its access to several main attractions.At its western end it reaches the Chao Praya River, just south of there is the Shangri-La Hotel, and north is the Oriental Hotel. two of the best hotels in Bangkok, and probably in the whole world. On the corner of Silom with Soi 18, is a night market which is less popular than flashy Patpong. Nonetheless, this one is more Thai in nature and thus more attractive for a late dinner of traditional Thai dishes. At the avenue’s eastern end is Lumphini Park, the largest in the metropolis and probably its most beautiful spot after the Grand Palace.Yet, the best known landmark on Silom is Patpong.The DramaAnyone acquainted with the Thai culture would not be surprised to find this shiny area hides a dramatic and complex history, fit of being featured by a Thai soap opera."Patpong" is named after the Patpongpanit family. Immigrants from Hainan Island in China, they bought the area now known as "Patpong" after the WWII, and built the roads in what was then an undeveloped area on the city’s outskirts. The two main alleys we see today are in fact private property and not regular streets.The big change came with the Vietnam War, when the area became one of the main R&R (Rest and Recuperation) spots for American soldiers; as a result of that go-go bars conquered Patpong. In the eighties, the alleys themselves were transformed into a market and the alleys took their modern shape.Unlikely LocationThe best way of assessing the area is visiting it during the day or the early afternoon, when the stalls begin to be constructed. The unobstructed alleys allow then moving quickly among them. The surprised traveler will find out that it takes no time at all to explore the whole Patpong area.Timing the VisitThe market opens in the late afternoon, the bars open after dark. Thus, a tour of the market is best done after spending the day visiting Lumphini and the other attractions at Silom.Few other attractions in Bangkok are so accessible; the Sala Daeng station of the Silom Skytrain line is practically atop the alleys. If planning to take pictures from the train’s high platform, do that before returning the ticket and leaving the main area. No other spot in the vicinity offers such a top view from the street’s center. Bangkok Metro Blue Line's Silom Station is within walking distance.LayoutTwo parallel alleys running between Silom and Surawang are the heart of the Patpong area. They are called Patpong 1 and Patpong 2. The go-go bars have spilled into two adjacent alleys, called Jaruwan and Thaniya. Labyrinthine alleys interconnect these alleys at surprising angles.The Place Looks FamiliarWhy most travelers reaching the area for the first time feel they have seen the place? Simply The Deer Hunter and Miss Saigon were partly filmed in Patpong.Gewgaws and KnickknacksThe market is clearly aimed for tourists, but is worth a visit during the late afternoon or the early evening, before the place gets unpleasant. Any imaginable gewgaw is in sale there; from fake Timex and Rolex watches to T-shirts in trendy designs. The market wakes up in the late afternoon and is open until midnight. How Do I Know This Rolex Is Real?Let me see. You are walking in a very packed night market with a myriad of stalls fighting for your attention. On one of them you see a pile of Rolex watches packed in plastic bags. The guy behind the stall is shouting a price of around fifty dollars for each one of them. He is expecting you to bargain hard and probably would get rid of any of these watches for thirty dollars.No problem. None of them is real.Patpong has the worst reputation in Bangkok for fake merchandise. The same analysis performed here for the Rolex is valid for DVDs, computer programs, designers clothes and – to be honest – everything in sight. Even the go-go bars personnel is not always what it appears to be.Are the Prices Good?I got a Rolex for thirty dollars! It even came with a free guarantee of ten minutes! Ain’t I lucky?The truth – again – is that not. Regardless your bargaining skills, Patpong is the most expensive street market in town. The same merchandise can be found in many other street markets at better prices. The main telltale of that are the many foreigners crowding the street.Can I ask the seller if the item is original?Copyright practices are different in Asia. This question is meaningless there. It is a watch and it works. The time it shows is real; you can even change it whenever you like. The name on it was put with a lot of thought and care and using high quality ink. Of course it is original!A good way of spotting the fakes – and all of them are fakes - is looking at the logos. Original items feature elaborated logos that were placed using sophisticated technologies and top quality materials. The fakes use the simplest available logo and simple assembling methods. The delicate initials engraved on any Rayban sunglasses are a good example; the price of making such a work is higher than the price of any fake sunglasses.
Hidden TreasureNot far from Rattanakosin Island, next to the Memorial Bridge and to Wang Burapha is one of the most beautiful and underrated markets in the city. Located along the Chao Phraya River and reaching almost all the way to the Old Siam Shopping Mall, is the Pak Khlong Market.Unlike all the other markets reviewed in this journal, this one is aimed for Bangkok’s denizens since it specializes in wholesale, flowers and other very specific items. Colorful and fragrant, the market is very enjoyable and offers views of the local culture that cannot be seen in other markets.Moreover, it is close to Chinatown and Little India (Pahurat Road). Thus it offers an excellent option for enriching a day dedicated to downtown markets. If choosing so, then the best strategy is to begin with the Flowers Market since it is the first one to awake and is the southernmost among these markets. Walking among the markets is the best approach for such a visit.LinguisticsLiterally, "Pak Khlong Talaat" means "Mouth Canal Market;" thus this is the "Market at the Mouth of the Canal."Follow the FragranceReaching the market is easy. Buses 2, 5, 8, 53, 60, 73, and 512 pass nearby; providing easy access from most of the city. Moreover, the market has its own pier. The Chao Phraya Express Boat has a stop at the Pak Khlong Talaat Pier.The market dates back to the foundation days of the city. Back then it was a floating market. Later it was transformed into a fish market, a wholesale market and only about sixty years ago its fragrance was substantially improved by transforming it into a fully dedicated flowers market.StreetsThe area seems to belong in the Bangkok of the 1920s. Stylish street lamps feature a European design and Thai mythological figures on their top. The sidewalks could be located in any part of Europe, except for the occasional spirits house, Buddha statue, or graceful cheddi that bring the wanderer back to Asia. Old Siam is a shopping mall built in an exquisite blend of Thai and European styles; its main gate is a small masterpiece. Visiting it is a must while in the area. If having arrived at the Flowers Market very early, then Old Siam is the perfect spot for a breakfast after having seen the market. Near this shopping mall are many gold shops and an electronic equipment market.ProductsThe flowers arrive very early in the morning – before sunrise - from nearby provinces. Nakhon Pathom, Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkram are provinces southwest of Bangkok which have perfect conditions for growing flowers and are thus the main suppliers of this market. Bright orchids can be bought here for less than a dollar, while exquisite roses are sold by packages of fifty for around two dollars the package.Some special flowers – especially those of European descent - that need a cooler climate are brought from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.Beyond the wholesalers that offer few items of interest for the traveler, many shops offer exquisite flower arrangements and a striking variety (and amounts) of phuang malai. The last are the ubiquitous flower garlands hanging from the rear mirror of every vehicle in Thailand, as an offering to an ever present Buddha image. People buy here jasmine, dok ruk flowers and other blossoms and then string them into beautiful round garlands. They are afterwards sold at the city’s main junctions; look for them next to the traffic lights.The wide variety of flowers includes tropical ones like orchids and lotus as well as roses, chrysanthemums, daisies and jasmines. Sometimes they are part of elaborate, extensive designs, shaped as animals or including small figures of animals and birds within them. Others are delicately packed one by one.Again, Bangkok’s fights its image as a polluted city: great gardens, parks and flower markets have shaped the modern city as a pleasant and fragrant metropolis.
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